If the opening round of this year’s Pacenotes MSA Northern Ireland Rally Championship is an indication of what lies ahead, rally fans are set to be treated to one of the closest fought battles in the series’ history. County Down’s Kirkistown Race Circuit marked round one of this year’s championship, and at the final time control, less than eight seconds separated the top five crews!
In the end, it was a surprise victory for Stephen Moore and Tony McHugh, who powered their Ford Focus WRC to the top of the Eurocables Stages podium. In a last gasp effort, they overhauled early leaders, Glenn Allen and Damien Connolly, to snatch their maiden N.I. series victory.
It was Cookstown’s Allen who led the North Armagh Motorcycle and Car Club event from the start in his Corolla WRC, topping the podium with a flying time over the opening test. Bangor’s Michael Curran, with Fabian McShane on the notes, was in a close second position, just two-tenths in arrears. All was not well in the Octavia WRC camp though, as Curran struggled with an understeering car.
Gary White and Kenny McKinstry were third after that opening stage, 5.6 seconds adrift of the leaders, closely followed by Stephen Moore. In fifth position, the Dromara father and son team of Denis and Stuart Biggerstaff were struggling with an understeering Impreza, and they nudged a hay bale.
Glenn Allen and Damien Connolly continued to lead the event after the second and third tests but the chasing pack were closing in. Michael Curran continued to hold second position in the Octavia WRC, but he was still struggling with the handling of his mount. The service crew were trying various settings for car but nothing seemed to work!
Meanwhile, Denis and Stuart Biggerstaff were two men on the move. After their earlier understeering dramas, they fixed a problem with their front differential and jumped into third position after stage three. Now less than three seconds off the lead, they were poised to make an attack.
Stephen Moore and Tony McHugh were also making progress, although the overall positions showed them moving down the ranks. Despite taking time out of the rally leader over the second and third tests, such was the fierce competition, Moore had actually dropped from fourth to fifth. Instead, it was Enniskillen’s Raymond Johnston and Richard Bell who moved into fourth, forcing their opening stage spin to the back of their minds.
Stage four saw a change at the top of the leaderboard as Denis and Stuart Biggerstaff leapfrogged both Glenn Allen and Michael Curran. Curran also moved in front of the Corolla WRC pilot, making it a 1-2 for the FeckinIrishWhiskey.com team. The Biggerstaffs were really on a charge, as they swiped almost four seconds out of Allen in one swoop! Incredibly, just one second separated these three drivers, while Raymond Johnston and Stephen Moore were also in the hunt. In fact, just 3.3 seconds separated the top five crews!
It was still anyone’s game but this was one rally that was set to end in tears for the new leaders. Denis and Stuart Biggerstaff started the penultimate stage aiming to extend their lead but their rally was over in a flash. As they accelerated off the start line, bolts sheared and a wheel fell off their car. Then, to make matters worse, Denis tore a muscle in his leg as he walked back to the paddock.
"It’s easy to explain," Biggerstaff said. "The car is three-legged and I’m one-legged! The studs sheared and that was it. They’re titanium wheel studs and they just degraded over time. As soon as I let the clutch out at the start line, they snapped and a wheel fell off."
Biggerstaff’s retirement automatically promoted Michael Curran into the top spot but he slipped off the road during the stage. The big Octavia was still understeering badly, and as he rounded Fisherman’s, the car refused to turn into the corner. He lost a handful of seconds, dropping him to fifth and handing the rally lead back to Glenn Allen, while early third placed holder Gary White dropped out of contention with problems of his own.
With one stage remaining, Allen was back on top in his Corolla WRC but he could still not afford to relax. Courtesy of his fastest time over the fifth test, Stephen Moore and Tony McHugh were breathing down his neck. Moore had placed himself in second position, just 1.2 seconds in arrears, while Raymond Johnston was third ahead of Sean Devine and Damien Duffin who moved up to fourth.
It was down to a final stage shoot-out between Allen and Moore, leaving the rest of the field waiting in the wings should anything happen to either man. As Allen completed the first lap of the circuit, Moore blasted off the start line. It was a race to the first corner but Allen just nipped in front, leaving Moore to follow his tracks for the duration of the first lap.
As Allen crossed the finish line, it looked as though the event may have been swinging in his favour. Moore and McHugh were still on a charge though, as they went on to complete their second and final lap of the circuit. Incredibly, the crew sliced four seconds out of Allen’s advantage, ensuring victory went home to Pomeroy for the first time!
"It feels fantastic!" Moore said after the event. "We became more used to the car as the day went on. There was real close competition, nobody was running away with it, which makes the win even more special!"
In second position, Glenn Allen and Damien Connolly were left pondering what they had to do to secure victory. Allen has tasted the runner-up position on more than 20 occasions, so surely his maiden N.I. series win is just around the corner?
The battle for third between Raymond Johnston and Sean Devine was also settled over the closing miles. In the end, it was Devine who set a stunning time, nipping in front of Johnston’s Impreza at the finish and almost claiming second placed Allen in the process. Meanwhile, fifth placed Michael Curran could do little about the men in front, as his struggle continued to the end.
"It was a waste of a day," Curran said. "We just couldn’t get the car to work at all, it was understeering everywhere. We were changing settings all day but it wasn’t making it any better or worse. Before the final stage, we found that the centre-differential sensor wasn’t working. So it was fixed for the last stage but then all the settings for the car were wrong. Hopefully, we’ll have better luck in Mayo!"
Sunoco Fuels Group N category Among the production category crews, Greyabbey’s Dickie and Liam Curran took a well deserved victory in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9. The crew were fastest on all but one stage, leaving them to take the win by almost half a minute from Bryan Haddock and Andrew Armstrong. Third position went to the PRH Construction Lancer of Eoin McErlean and Donard McCann.
Superdrive two wheel drive
For the second year in succession, Wesley Patterson brought his Feckin’ Irish Whiskey Escort home at the top of the two wheel drive category. With navigator and sponsor Shane Braniff calling the notes, Patterson grabbed the victory and the cash prize by 30 seconds from second placed Alistair Cochrane and Pam Irwin. James Kennedy and Andrew Murray were third.
Round 2 – McGrady Insurance Bishopscourt Stages
With the opening round of the Pacenotes backed series completed, competitors are looking forward to round two, the McGrady Insurance Bishopscourt Stages. Organised by Ballynahinch and District Motor Club, the second event of the year is set to take place on Saturday 17 March. Regulations and entry forms are available from the official championship website at www.nirally.com.
Results (Top 10)
1 Stephen Moore/Tony McHugh (Focus WRC) 30m 28.5s
2 Glenn Allen/Damien Connolly (Corolla WRC) 30m 31.3s
3 Sean Devine/Damien Duffin (Impreza WRC) 30m 31.5s
4 Raymond Johnston/Richard Bell (Impreza WRC) 30m 34.7s
5 Mike Curran/Fabian McShane (Octavia WRC) 30m 36.4s
6 Dick Curran/Liam Curran (Lancer Evo 9) 31m 25.1s
7 Brian Dowey/Ricky Cochrane (Escort WRC) 31m 50.3s
8 Bryan Haddock/Andrew Armstrong (Lancer Evo 9) 31m 53.1s
9 George Robinson/Tommy Speers (Escort WRC) 31m 53.3s
10 Seamus Devine/Terry McGonigle (Impreza WRC) 31m 53.9s
SS1 Glenn Allen/Damien Connolly
SS2 Raymond Johnston/Richard Bell
SS3 Denis Biggerstaff/Stuart Biggerstaff
SS4 Sean Devine/Damien Duffin
SS5 Stephen Moore/Tony McHugh
SS6 Stephen Moore/Tony McHugh
SS1-SS3 Glenn Allen/Damien Connolly
SS4 Denis Biggerstaff/Stuart Biggerstaff
SS5 Glenn Allen/Damien Connolly
SS6 Stephen Moore/Tony McHugh
Words Courtesy of Jonathan MacDonald : MediaJAM